The beliefs of Thomas Jefferson

Daily Reading for July 7

Thomas Jefferson came to believe that the combined effect of power-hungry monarchs and corrupt “priests” had despoiled the original, pristine teachings of Jesus. But beneath these corruptions—which he labeled with such words as “nonsense,” “dross,” “rags,” “distortions,” and “abracadabra”—Jefferson came to believe there lay a fulcrum of eternal truth. In 1803, he wrote to Benjamin Rush: “To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

Jefferson disagreed with the Galilean on some matters: “It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin, I require a counter-poise of good works to redeem it.” Having disagreed with Jesus, Jefferson then indicated what he admired about Jesus: “It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcation, the beauty of his apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire. . . . Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence.”

In some famous correspondence with a Unitarian minister, Jefferson predicted that Unitarianism would soon sweep the nation: “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust there is not a young man now living who will not die an Unitarian.”

From The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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